On April 17th, the Village of Stillwater celebrated its Bicentennial, and leading hundreds of his friends and neighbors in the Happy Birthday song was its 64th leader and 12th Mayor, Rick Nelson.
As he visited with residents at The Stillwater Area Community Center and helped serve the 200th birthday cake, in the back of his mind the tall, athletic looking, charismatic figure must have been thinking … it’s funny how quickly life can change.
Just a year earlier, the 60-year-old Stillwater native was content to stay in the background and run his nearly 30-year-old business “The Works,” repairing people’s homes and maintaining their lawns while taking an active part in the church he loves right up the street.
Then one day he was approached by others to run for public office, a decision that “took some convincing,” he admits, but it was something “I had secretly hoped to do some day.”
That day came in March 2015, when he ran against the longest tenured mayor in the village’s long history and was elected to his first, four-year term.
“Change is different, not difficult,” he told a gathering of friends and family who packed the Stillwater Blockhouse for his inauguration one month after the election. That’s a statement Nelson still stands by today.
“The changes we have made were only difficult for those who thought they were not possible,” Nelson says. “Replacing Mayor (Ernest) Martin (who stood by Nelson on the Bicentennial stage) was challenging at first. But having solid Trustees and village staff allowed all of us to move forward together.”
A change in governing styles
It didn’t take long to see that changes in the style of Stillwater Village government were in deed afoot.
Nelson’s first job in office was to be patient and simply spend some time “just listening to what people had to say.” This was a trait he learned from Charlie Woodman, who took the same approach when he first became minister of the United Church of Stillwater.
Nelson spent time speaking to people face to face, yes, but he also took an approach new to the mayor’s office by launching a public Facebook page and attempting to use social media to connect to younger residents as well. That page today has a prominent link on this village website.
“You must listen to learn and only then can you become an effective leader,” he says.
Next, the new mayor created a village “uniform” of sorts (or at least that’s what his wife Catherine calls it) – a maroon collared Polo type golf shirt sporting a Village of Stillwater logo. He asked Trustees and various village employees to join him in wearing the special shirts to village meetings and public events. The shirts were first worn at the Memorial Day parade last May.
“I wanted us to operate as a team in the village,” was his reason. “Having the uniform on hopefully will remind us that in the end we all have the same goal, to serve the residents. I think we look sharp and respectable.”
Then there was a change of a spiritual nature. Nelson instituted something new at his first Board of Trustees meeting and it has become a staple of those meetings from that day forward. Following the traditional Pledge of Allegiance, Mayor Nelson asked people in the room for a moment of silence before he and Trustees began addressing the evening’s agenda items.
Taking a moment of silence was something he had learned during his 30 years of officiating local sports like field hockey, lacrosse and basketball, and it’s a practice that has stuck with him to this day.
“We all go through daily struggles and this allows me to clear my head and focus on the task in front of me,” Nelson explains. “It is a clearing and calming moment during which I ask for guidance and strength from God.”
That guidance led Mayor Nelson to his first anniversary in office on April 6. With one year of his four-year term in the books, we sat down with the mayor and asked him a few questions. Here is what he had to say:
What are your overall impressions of your first year as Stillwater village mayor?
My first impression is that I believe the people respect the fact that we listen to them and act accordingly to what their desires are, and we allow them to be part of the process. During the Camelot Associates (apartment proposal for the north end) we formed an ad hoc committee of board members and residents to review it together. We had several meetings with the Camelot group in an attempt to make a decision and find consensus. In the end, the information gathered at those meetings and discussions that followed guided us in our decision (not to support the project).
What have you learned in office that you didn’t know before you got there?
I have learned that T’s and I’s must be crossed and dotted properly before taking action. Also, it’s important to pay attention to budget items so as not to overspend any line item.
What one thing would you like residents to know about you?
I’d like them to know that I am reachable and willing to meet and discuss any situation that arises in the village. I will always return phone calls and emails and work to find a consensus to problems to the best of my ability.
What are the most important qualities you have found that help you accomplish your job as a public servant?
- Remembering to delegate … you can’t do it alone
- Once you assign a task, allow some space
- Taking your time with every decision
- Being firm when necessary
- Listening, taking notes and asking questions
- Being consistent
- Always having a sense of humor
If you had it to do all over again would you still have run for mayor?
Absolutely. During my life I have served in many leadership roles. I held office during my school years and during my church and officiating career. I secretly had hoped to serve at some point in the public sector. I was surprised when it was suggested I run for mayor and it took some convincing to follow through. The rest, as they say, is history.
What are your accomplishments in office to date?
- Upgrading the Department of Public Works crew
- Denying the Camelot Associates apartment project because it compromised the historic nature of the village
- Passing the vacant buildings law
- Signing an agreement with Community Champs America to help with monitoring building foreclosures in the village
- Rebuilding and modernization Major Dickinson Park through a state grant
Creating a comprehensive assessment of street conditions for street repairs over a five-year plan
- Knowing that by fiscal year end, all village fire hydrants and water shut off valves will be in working order
- Passing the 2016-2017 budget with no property tax increase
- Identifying and repairing two major water leaks in the village, allowing us to reduce the amount of water we purchase from the Saratoga County Water Authority. This will save the village $50,000 per year.
Of these accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
If there were one thing that sticks out it would be dealing with the Camelot (apartment) project. Coming into office with very little knowledge of the project was daunting at first, but we took our time, learned and applied the law accordingly. It was a great learning experience for all of us.
What are your goals for the village moving forward?
- Replacing outdated main water lines … we cannot kick this down the road anymore
- Registering and/or demolishing vacant buildings in the village
- Connecting to the Canal System of trails
- Encouraging further commercial development through town, county and
- Chamber of Commerce connections
- Allowing town residents to tap into the village water lines
When it’s your time to leave office, how do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as someone who gave back to his roots, someone who solved the problems he could solve, and someone who left the village a better place… and we’d had a laugh or two while doing it.